Easter Island: debunking the myths

Posted by on June 7th, 2013

Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it is known in Polynesian, must be one of the most enigmatic places on earth. Thousands of miles from anything, including the Chile coast, and littered with almost 900 moai, the angular figures carved from volcanic tuff which have made the island world-renowned, it is a deeply haunting place.

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Nobody who visits Easter does so by accident: it is a diehard traveler’s pilgrimage if ever there was one. So much mystery and conjecture surrounds the island’s history that it really pays to separate fact from fiction before you go.

Early days

  • Easter was first populated somewhere between 700 and 1100 AD. The settlers came by traditional canoe or catamaran either from Mangareva (1600 miles away) or from the Marquesas (2000 miles away).
  • Rapa Nui, the language spoken on Easter, shares 80% of its vocabulary with Mangarevan, making Mangareva the most likely source of the settlers.
  • Easter’s remoteness meant that islanders could not depend on trade to augment the resources on the island. Interestingly there was considerable intra-island trade between the 11 (or 12) tribes on Easter, something which did not happen on less remote Polynesian islands.
  • When Polynesians first arrived at Easter it was covered in trees (among them the largest known palm tree in the world) and was home to many nesting birds (both sea and land). The trees were vital for construction, cooking, boat-building and they provided fruit and rope. The birds also provided a food source, both as eggs and as meat.

 Moai and ahu

  • Moai vary greatly in size, but on average they stand 13ft high and weigh 14 tons. The largest moai ever erected measured 32ft and 82 tons, while the shortest didn’t even make it to 4ft! Enormous moai have been found in the quarry, but there is little chance the Rapa Nui would have been able to erect them. Most moai incorporate head, shoulders and torso, but some go as far as the feet.
  • Although all the attention is given to the moai, the ahu or stone platforms they stand on actually required greater manpower. The ahu are rectangular in shape and feature intricate retaining walls of basalt which are filled with rubble. The largest ahu is 720ft long.
  • The moai and ahu are all located on the coastal strip of the island and all moai face inland, watching over their descendants and with their backs to the spirit world of the sea.
  • Thor Heyerdahl believed took the complexity of the structures on the island to mean that they were the work of Incas while Eric von Daniken believed that only aliens could have been responsible for their construction and erection. Nowadays all experts agree, however, that the moai and ahu were made by Polynesians. Not only is the style consistent with sculptures on other Polynesian islands, but the modern day islanders were also able to re-erect the statues using traditional methods.
  • The huri mo’ai or statue toppling began in the 1770s, when social upheaval caused by food shortages caused rival tribes to knock moai over, breaking them in the process. By 1830 all but the most inaccessible moai had been toppled.

 European intervention

  • Europeans never saw Easter at its peak (it is believed to have had a population of nearly 20 000 at some time). The first to visit was a Dutch sailor, Roggeveen, who spent a week on the island in 1722. He reported seeing many standing moai but no trees, and estimated the population at several thousand. Perhaps the biggest impact of deforestation was that islanders could no longer build boats, thereby eliminating all deepwater marine species from their diet.
  • By 1877 a combination of factors – continued internal conflict, coupled with epidemics brought by visiting European ships and crippling Peruvian slave raids in the 1860s – had reduced the population to 111 sorry souls. That was the all-time low; Easter’s current population stands at about 4000, with about 60% of them being descendents of the Rapa Nui.
  • Easter was annexed by Chile in 1888 and has remained Chilean ever since, even though Chile – over 2000 miles away – played no role in its early history.

Although Easter is most famous for its moai it’s also home to spectacular scenery and unique culture. LAN flies there six times a week from Santiago and Vaya Adventures offers a fantastic Easter Island extension which can be added to any trip. Before you go, I’d advise reading the chapter on Easter Island in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse. In fact, I’d recommend reading the whole book, but that’s another story…

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